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Connect:  A Novel

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Connect: A Novel

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Author: Julian Gough
Publisher: Anchor, 2019
Nan A. Talese, 2018
Doubleday, 2018
Picador, 2018

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Nevada; the near future; a family about to implode.

In a world run by computers, hackers have power - and awkward, home-schooled Colt is among the best. But when Colt secretly submits his mother Naomi's breakthrough research to a biotech conference, and it is immediately shut down, mother and son are forced to go on the run. Now Colt is coding for his life.

As the military, and Colt's father, hunt them through a Las Vegas of self-driving cars and surveillance drones, Naomi has to decide how far she will go to protect her child. Can she kill a man? Can she destroy the world?

And Colt is finally forced to leave the comfort of virtual reality, and face his greatest terror: love.

The world is evolving; humans need to evolve too...



The Cold Desert

This is a novel, set in the future. But it is also true.

It will happen, just like this, and soon. I know this, for reasons that will become clear.

Who am I? Well that's an interesting question. Obviously, someone is producing these words; writing this book; the guy with his name under the title. He's physically doing the job right now, in Berlin, on an old laptop, at an even older writing desk, in the corner of his bedroom.

But I'm not him.

This is a novel. Set in the future. But it is also true. Don't worry, it will all come clear in the end.


She walks into Colt's bedroom without knocking.

Her son is wearing the helmet again. He's moving his arms, his head. Playing in his gameworld. It's totally real to him.

The black plastic just covers his eyes, nose, and ears. Enough to keep out the universe.

He doesn't hear her. Doesn't see her.

Naomi hates watching this, but she can't stop. He's so like his father. As handsome. More handsome.

Colt shoots someone. Drops to one knee. Shoots someone else. Ducks the return fire. She knows the gestures so well. She's seen this so often.

He's killed them all. He unties the girl. He kisses the girl, or she kisses him. It's not clear from the sounds that leak out of his helmet into the room. But his mother knows exactly what he's seeing now. He sees his ideal woman, not wearing very much. Designed by him and his friends, mostly American and Russian teenage boys, so; small nose. Big breasts. Narrow waist. Wide ass.

Standing alone, beside his single bed, his pyjamas begin to bulge out at the front, and the bulge rises, changes angle.

In real life, he has hardly even spoken to a girl.

Naomi looks away, blinking. Glances around her son's small, dark bedroom, the drawn blinds keeping out the bright desert sunrise.

Electronics equipment and tools cover the small table.

Piles of old clothes on his chair, on the floor.

What a mess.

There; six, seven empty water glasses, half-visible in the shadows under the bed. Every glass in the house. Well, she can get those later.

She turns and walks silently, bare feet on the wooden floor, out of his bedroom. Quietly closes the door.

Walks away, down the short corridor, to the bathroom.

She loads up her brush.

'Toothpaste for sensitive teeth.'

Brushes carefully for three minutes. Leans down into the sink, and sluices out her mouth under the tap. Straightens up, rinses the brush, and flicks the bristles dry with her thumb. Lies it down, on the edge of the sink. Beside her son's toothbrush.

Almost seventeen, and never been kissed. Oh, Colt.

She picks up her brush again. Takes a deep breath, and closes her eyes.

Brushes again, harder, with the dry brush, till her gums bleed.


In the kitchen, Naomi hangs her silk jacket on the back of her chair. The jacket used to be her mother's, one of the few things she had brought with her from Nanjing. Naomi strokes the shoulder unconsciously, as though her mother were still wearing it.

From behind her, the fridge says, 'Don't forget your pill!' in a bright, friendly voice that makes Naomi grind her teeth.

Oh well. Colt likes it. I think...

It's hard to tell.

She goes to the fridge, takes out the pillbox, and closes the fridge door.

She pulls the snug, airtight pillbox lid straight up and it sucks free. She licks her little finger; lifts out a tiny green tablet on the wet fingertip. Gulps the tablet dry. Hesitates.

Opens the fridge again, and takes out the cool silver tin in which she keeps her fresh ground coffee.

She glances towards the kitchen door. If Colt was here, he'd be lecturing her. He's usually straight in after her. Probably still caught up in the game. Good.

'Coffee inhibits absorption,' says the fridge, and Naomi knows she's projecting, but... the fridge sounds sad. Worse; disappointed in her. 'Drinking coffee is not recommended within an hour of...'

'Oh, shut up,' says Naomi.

It shuts up.

She puts the silver tin down carefully on the countertop. Quietly unclips the lid.

She leans down over the open tin, and inhales the rich, warm, bitter, complicated, comforting smell.

Then she looks for the Italian stovetop coffeepot, while her conscious mind splutters and rages and says no, no, no.

Oh yes. Top shelf...

She takes down the small aluminium pot. Unscrews the top.

Her hands automatically pour the water, spoon the coffee, screw the pot back together, while her conscious mind says no, no, no.

She switches on the old electric cooker.

This really isn't a good idea...

She heats some milk. Whips it into stiff foam with the little hand-held frother, just as the coffee comes bubbling and gurgling through into the aluminium pot.

Coffee interferes with absorption...

Her hands assemble a cappuccino.

I need to control my levels...

She makes Colt a smoothie, and puts it on the table.

Puts a box of granola on the table.

Goes to the cupboard, picks up a bowl. No, wait; that granola tastes weird with coffee. And she'd rather have the coffee. She puts back the bowl.

I can eat in the lab.

She sits down with a sigh, and lifts the cappuccino to her lips.

Colt walks into the kitchen. He's wearing the helmet, but the game's switched off, so the visor is clear. He can see her.

Naomi's hand, holding the cup, lurches reflexively forwards, to hide the coffee behind the box of granola. Warm foam slops back over the cup's lip, onto the handle, her hand; drops in a slow glop to the table.

F*** it.

She brings the cup back up, and takes a slow, deliberate sip. It's delicious.

'Your smoothie's on the table,' she says.

He looks at the coffee in her hand.

'Did you take your tablet early, or something?' he asks.

'Drink your smoothie,' she says.

He goes and gets a straw. Green, to match the smoothie. Sits across from her.

'You shouldn't drink coffee with your tablet,' he says. 'It interferes with absorption.'

She puts down the cup, to lick the foam off her hand. Picks up the cup, takes another sip. Drawls in a French accent, 'Well, maybe I want to be interfered with.'

Colt frowns. 'That doesn't make sense, Mama.'

Naomi reaches up and, turning a big, invisible dial, says, 'Click.'

These days, Naomi only does that when she really, really wants to change the subject. When pursuing the point will mean shouting, and crying.

Colt changes the subject. 'Have you got your chimpanzee yet?'

Naomi groans, and reaches for the invisible dial again.

Colt rocks back and forth in his chair, almost imperceptibly.

Naomi's hand stops, in midair. No. It's a fair question. She drops her hand back to her side. 'They're not giving me a chimpanzee.'

Colt takes a drag on his smoothie. 'Why not?'

'Too expensive. Too much paperwork. Ethics Committee weren't happy. They gave me about fifteen different reasons.'

He makes the smiling, worried face that means, seriously?

She does the little shrug and smile that means, no, I'm exaggerating. 'Five, six reasons,' she says.

'You could appeal again,' says Colt.

'I could, yeah.'

'You're giving up.'


'Mama, you could just test it on me.'

Is he joking? But he never jokes.

Oh my God he's serious.

'NO, Colt.'

'I trust you.'

'Colt, it's a completely untested, experimental procedure...'

'It's not untested, it works...'

'It works in mice! Not people.'


'--And it took me months to find a way to make it work in mice, and mice aren't complicated. I wasn't worried about preserving their memories, or their personalities...'

'But you've dealt with the cell membrane integrity problem...'

'How do you know that?' Sharp, she's way too sharp, and he winces. Hunches his shoulders.

But he closes his eyes, starts humming.

This could be bad...

She wants to walk around the table and comfort him, touch him, hold him, but she can't - her hug's like an electric shock when he's like this, he bucks and screams - and so she rocks in her chair, in unconscious sympathy with his rocking, and watches his face writhe. My God, he's really trying to engage today.

Oh Colt thank you, I love you, come back, yes...

He opens his eyes, says without looking at his mother, 'I read your new paper.'

'Colt, you can't...' She tries to modulate her voice, not close him down with her emotions, but she's, inexplicably, scared. And angry.

She glances towards the kitchen counter, at her screen, but it's switched off, and folded up like a sheet of paper. No, of course, he must have read it in her office. The only copy is in her data safe.

'Please, Colt, you have to stop hacking into my files. It's not fair. I need some space. Some privacy.'

'You've solved the problems.' He won't look at her. Mumbles, 'You're ready to go on primates. Please.'

'I've solved the old problems. There are always new ones.' She shifts in her chair, trying to catch his eye. 'Look, realistically, it will probably kill the first couple of primates. The official risk assessment was not good. That's why the Ethics Committee won't...'

'But they don't know how important this is.'

'I gave them the general outline...'

'I saw your application. You didn't tell them...'

'Colt, I'm not even sure I want to do it.'

'Why, you think God will be mad at you?'

It's her turn to stiffen. 'Look, changing people... so fundamentally...' She can't talk about the sacredness of the human creation, that will just set him off, she'll have to rephrase it. '...It's not just a religious problem. Even in secular, ethical terms; once you have two classes of people...'

'No, you're changing the terms.' After a couple of years of religious argument, Colt has gotten pretty good at fighting her inside her own logic. 'If God made you,' he says, 'then God could be acting through you.'

Yes. She has thought that. But what if He's not?

'Let's not argue about religion,' she says. 'We end up playing two different language games; it can't go anywhere.'

'OK,' says Colt.

They are connoisseurs of each other's OKs. And that's not a good OK. She studies his face. He looks down. Takes another drag on his smoothie.

'Did StemCellCon accept your original paper?' says Colt.


She doesn't have to explain herself to him.

He drinks more smoothie.

There's a silence.

'Did you submit it?' he says.

Oh, this is ridiculous. Who's the parent here? 'Honey, forget it, the deadline's passed.'

'But, if you...'

'You were fighting again,' says Naomi.


'This morning.'

'Oh yeah. I told them and told them and told them I didn't want to fight. But they wanted to fight.'

Naomi sighs so deeply the froth on her cappuccino dimples, and stays dimpled. 'So what did you do?' She takes a second sip; it's OK. The first sip is always the best, by far.

'I gave myself infinite ammo, and I killed them all and I took their women.'

'I don't want you doing that.'

'They're not real women, Mama. Well, one of them turned out to be real...'

'No, I don't want you killing the people that annoy you.'

'It's only a game, Mama.'

Wait a minute, back up. There was something odd about his voice there... 'What do you mean, one of them turned out to be real?'

But Colt shakes his head hard, doesn't want to talk about it.

Naomi feels a hot shiver of embarrassment on Colt's behalf, at the thought of him trying to be a man with a real woman, and so she puts it with all the other stuff she doesn't want to think about. If he wants to talk about it later, he'll bring it up.

She takes another sip. Takes it slow, tries to savour it.

If only all sips could be first sips.

'That's the problem, Colt,' she says. 'You can't do that in real life.'


'You can't just change the rules to suit yourself.'

'But you want to change things, Mama. You change things in the lab. You change the rules of life.'

'No, I don't want to change things. I'm a scientist. I just want to observe, and understand.'

Colt is shaking his head. 'You can't observe a thing without changing it. You're part of the universe. When you get extra information, that's already a change.'

Why did she start this? Now he's not drinking his smoothie.

'There's a difference, a lot of differences,' she says, 'between playing a game, and doing research.'

'OK, great, they're different. So why can't I change the rules? It's my game. And sometimes the rules turn out to be dumb.'

'In real life, you don't have infinite ammo. In real life, they can kill you.'

'I can tell the difference, Mama.'

She glances at the time. Plenty. Oh well, if they were going to argue, they may as well argue about the big stuff. She takes in half a mouthful of coffee. Pushes it to the front of her mouth with her tongue, sucks it back hard through her teeth, swallows. 'I think you're spending too long in the helmet.'

Colt is rocking back and forth again. But he's engaging, he's not shutting down. He's improving.

He clears his throat. 'There's a guy in China played for six days straight. Without sleeping. That's the record.'

Oh dear lord. 'Look, he must have taken off the helmet at some point--'

'No.' Colt is starting to rock faster. 'He didn't.'

'Fine, fine! He didn't.' This wasn't going anywhere. This never went anywhere.

'There was another guy did it for eight days,' said Colt, 'but he died.'

Copyright © 2018 by Julian Gough


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